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Selma Burke: Sculptor’s influence seen in FDR’s image on U.S. dime

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and artists like Selma Burke that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

I first heard the name Selma Burke while drinking coffee and eating croissants in a Parisian cafe.

My tour guide name-dropped Burke ahead of the Black Paris Tours, which highlights spots frequented by the African American artists, soldiers and other notables who fled to Paris away from racism in America in the 20th century.

When she returned to the States due to the threat of Nazis, she created the image of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is engraved into the U.S. dime.

There may be history in your pocket, an under-told history.

» MORE: Celebrating the stories of Black History Month

John R. Sinnock’s signature is on the dime, and he receives credit for the work while Burke’s portrait, which she spent two years working on, is only recognized as an inspiration and model for the final image used on the coin. According to Lisa E. Farrington, author of “Creating Their Own Image, The History of African-American Women Artists,” Sinnock made “barely perceptible alterations.”

“The most evident distinctions are the jutting chin and steeply sloping forehead and nose in Burke’s composition, which she believed gave the president ‘that wonderful look of going forward,’ ” Farrington wrote.

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Burke won a national competition to sculpt the portrait. After she won the contest, according to the book “Out of the Miry Clay,” she couldn’t find a profile photograph to base her portrait on, despite looking through newspapers and library records.

Selma Burke poses with a bronze plaque of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she completed shortly after his death on April 12, 1945. The plaque, showing the late president’s profile, with the four freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship and freedom of speech) above it, was approved by the president’s widow. CONTRIBUTED BY OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION COLLECTION, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE U.S. NAVY
Selma Burke poses with a bronze plaque of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she completed shortly after his death on April 12, 1945. The plaque, showing the late president’s profile, with the four freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship and freedom of speech) above it, was approved by the president’s widow. CONTRIBUTED BY OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION COLLECTION, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE U.S. NAVY

“I called the president and told him that I had a Ford car and could drive to Washington to sketch him,” Burke said in an interview. “He gave me a 15-minute appointment on Feb. 22, 1944. I was in such a hurry to get to Washington that I ran to a butcher store and asked them to give me a roll of white butcher’s paper, threw it in my bag and went.”

She ended up sketching the president for four hours over two days. FDR died in April 1945 and the bronze plaque was unveiled on Sept. 24, 1945, by his successor Harry S. Truman.

Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t like the portrait, but endorsed the final image because it portrayed FDR as younger, not his early 60s. His health had continued to decline during the sketch and while Burke completed the portrait.

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According to Farrington, Burke said of Eleanor’s critique, “I have not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow. Five hundred years from now America and all the world will want to look at our president, not as he was for the few months before he died, but as we saw him for the time he was with us — strong, so full of life.”

This photo of Selma Burke with her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington circa 1935 was taken by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Federal Art Project. The photographer is Pinchos Horn. CONTRIBUTED BY ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
This photo of Selma Burke with her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington circa 1935 was taken by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Federal Art Project. The photographer is Pinchos Horn. CONTRIBUTED BY ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Burke used brass and bronze, alabaster and limestone and other materials to create many of her works, which included academic figures and portrait busts of famous black leaders and creative works like “Temptation,” “Torso” and “(Untitled) Woman and Child,” which was made from painted red oak. She created varied works from varied types of material, including a 9-foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr.

“It is very inspiring to release a figure from a piece of stone or wood,” she once said. “Very often, I look at (the) stone or wood for a year or longer … I will have completed the piece mentally before attacking the material.”

Burke was born on New Year’s Eve in 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. She had nine siblings, and was inspired from a young age by her father who traveled the world and her missionary uncles who were stationed in Africa. They shared sculptures and masks with Burke at a young age.

“I have known African art all of my life,” she said in 1970. “At a time when this sculpture was misunderstood and laughed at, my family had the attitude that these were beautiful objects.”

Though she knew early on she wanted to become an artist, she went into the nursing field to please her mother.

Her sister, Geneva Burke Miller, said during a 1990 interview that their mother told Selma, “You can’t live off of art,” while she carved on a tree branch. Burke Miller said she used to laugh at Selma when she was being reprimanded.

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“One time I laughed at my sister when the little house she made out of clay got washed away. I laughed at her. She lashed back at me, ‘I’ll fix you; one of these days I’m gonna do something with my stuff that you won’t laugh at!’ “

Nursing led Burke to Philadelphia and New York. She gained prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, and taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center, where she was mentored by sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962), who is considered one of the most influential African American artists of the 1930s. She also joined the Harlem Artists Guild and worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, which was a program that “permanently mainstreamed fine arts into American culture.”

“Untitled (Woman and Child),” created by Selma Burke about 1950, was made of painted red oak. It’s part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection. CONTRIBUTED BY FOURANDSIXTY / WIKIMEDIA
“Untitled (Woman and Child),” created by Selma Burke about 1950, was made of painted red oak. It’s part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection. CONTRIBUTED BY FOURANDSIXTY / WIKIMEDIA

Burke spent a year in Europe, studying in France, Germany and Austria. While in Paris, Burke worked under Henri Matisse, whom she cites as one of many influences. According to “Out of the Miry Clay,” Matisse liked her work. “He told me to loosen up, stay free, and to be open and honest,” Burke said. “He said that I had a big talent and he wanted me to add size and volume in my drawings. He wanted me to open up as a person.”

As well as a sculptor, Burke was also a lifelong student and educator, winning numerous awards and fellowships. She earned her first degree from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and eventually graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia. She started her first art school in 1940, eventually starting her second in 1946, and opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, which operated from 1968 to 1981.

President Jimmy Carter recognized Burke for her contributions to African American art history with a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award in 1979.

She died in 1995 at the age of 94.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/news/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.